BERLIN -- Few knew the German satirist and talk show host Jan Böhmermann until earlier this month, when he triggered a bilateral crisis between Germany and Turkey by reciting a vituperative poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Böhmermann started his show "Neo Magazin" in 2013 under the aegis of a secondary channel of the public TV giant ZDF. "Neo Magazin" targeted a young, Internet-savvy generation, far from the general audience of ZDF. Böhmermann paved his way to stardom by performing clever, mostly Internet-based gags that ended up as viral videos across all German social media. His latest hit before the Erdoğan uproar? A music video in which he called for a diverse Germany that warmly receives refugees.
Other shining moments include a Hitler takeoff -- "Haul Hitler" -- in which the Führer sells his stuff on eBay, and a video manipulation of a speech by former Greek financial minister Yanis Varoufakis, in which Böhmermann photoshopped a middle finger onto the minister's hand, directed at the euro. Böhmermann's satirical style has gone down well with the public -- he received one of the most prestigious awards in German media, the Grimme-Preis, for his stunts earlier in 2016.
Is Germany now dependent on Erdoğan's mood?
ZDF then rewarded Böhmermann with his very own TV show, "Neo Magazine Royale," shown as part of the channel's prime-time main schedule. Within German culture, he's not comparable to what Jon Stewart became in the U.S. -- not yet. Böhmermann started like Trevor Noah -- a bit more confrontational, with a show structured in a simpler way. In principle, his jokes suggest what a hard time everyone has these days in stating simple truths. German society, much like American society, increasingly places a taboo on what may be said as well as on when, where and how things may be said. In his down-to-earth way of addressing the audience, Böhmermann most resembles John Oliver. Oliver compiles extensive research and turns it into intricate, pointed content, while Böhmermann emphasizes the visual. Both, however, succeed by being in your face with the viewer.
Böhmermann's vituperative poem against Erdoğan -- who in recent years has limited Turkish press freedom, implemented Internet censorship and violently broken up demonstrations, among his other authoritarian acts -- properly and rightfully targeted exactly the sort of leader any satirist should attack. It is, after all, the Erdoğans of our world who seek to crush free speech, art and media. The "poem," however, is not high art. It suggests, in the basest terms, that Erdoğan indulges himself with goats and sheep, and that his private parts stink like Döner, the popular Turkish dish. It rhymes only on the most basic level, does not impress with poetic devices or elegant use of vocabulary. It is classic Böhmermann -- in your face. One does not need to credit it as art to recognize it as legitimate satire.
Alas, Böhmermann and many others quickly discovered that an antique paragraph in the German criminal code penalizes the insult of foreign heads of state. Erdoğan demanded that the German government prosecute Böhmermann under that section, while also filing a private complaint against him. On April 15, Merkel announced in a brief statement that the German government would permit Erdoğan's action to proceed under the "insult" paragraph, but that the provision would be repealed as of 2018. German media reported much disagreement within the government about Merkel's decision.
For now, Böhmermann could face several years of jail time. Last week he came under police protection after threats were reportedly made against him, and ZDF canceled last Thursday's broadcast of his program.
Has Germany, because of its refugee deal with Turkey, become vulnerable to blackmail?
The Turkish population in Germany now stands at about 3 million. Their grandparents came to the country as Gastarbeiter -- guest laborers -- in the 1960s. Erdoğan sees them as an outpost in Europe -- he has tried to instrumentalize them politically before.
How will Germans react to the government's decision? We're waiting to see. Merkel now relies on Erdoğan's cooperation to deal with the refugee crisis. That's the only explanation for why she distanced herself from Böhmermann in a telephone call with Turkey, arranged before Böhmermann's performance of the poem. According to her spokesman, she called Böhmermann's presentation "intentionally insulting." But her remark did not suffice for Ankara. Erdoğan's deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, described the poem as a "crime against humanity." Such language can only be considered laughable in light of Turkey's countless crimes against humanity (think of the Armenian genocide). It shows how Erdoğan and his entourage now perceive things like a sultan and his Ottoman court.
In the meantime, discussion in Germany is heatedly exploring the boundaries of satire. Much cited, in this case, is the writer Kurt Tucholsky, who observed that satire can do anything. Satire in most cases seems to remind the 1 percent -- the ruling class, the elites -- of their vulnerability, that they don't stand above the people. In-your-face Jan Böhmermann can be seen to have advanced German satire, which boasts a long lineage back (at least) to Friedrich Schiller, who called for "Mens' pride before kings' thrones" in his "Ode to Joy."
The continuing question in the Böhmermann case is the one Turkish-German satirist Serdar Somuncu asked on one of the most popular German talk shows: Has Germany, because of its refugee deal with Turkey, become vulnerable to blackmail? Is it now dependent on Erdoğan's mood? The Böhmermann controversy shows the extent to which the Turkish president now influences public life in Germany, dictating moves to Angela Merkel.
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